As Army Withdraws, Next War a Matter of When

JERUSALEM, Israel, DATETK?–Fresh from the battlefield in southern Lebanon, disgruntled soldiers from reservist battalion 8101 camped out across the street from the prime minister’s office in a small park and trained their sights on Ehud Olmert.

They were there to demand resignations from Mr. Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Army Chief of Staff Dan Halutz–and the quicker, the better. In their minds, after all, it was only a matter of time before they and their comrades would have to go right back into battle.

“Our mission is to rehabilitate the army for the next war,” said Asaf David, a 28-year old who makes his day-to-day living as a lawyer. “War is coming again.”

The remark of the infantry reservist reflects the widespread sentiment among Israelis that the war of the last month is merely a prelude to more fighting. As the Israelis start repairing the damage from a month of rocket attacks and begin an anguished self-examination regarding the war effort, they are already talking openly about the “next war”–a second installment of the month-long slugfest against the Hezbollah militiamen and their Katyusha rockets. Some even fear that the coming conflict could involve Hezbollah’s patron, Iran.

Although Hezbollah guerillas have silenced their guns since the cease-fire went into effect a week ago, Israelis expect that the Iranian-backed militia will do its best to re-arm in preparation for engaging the Jewish state once again.

“If we let them recover and rehabilitate all of the things they had built, it might not happen in a month or two months, but it will eventually happen,” said Shimon Shapira, a reserve brigadier general and a senior research associate at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center. “When they feel they are ready to carry out this conflict, they’ll do it. They haven’t given up on the jihad with Israel.”

The diplomatic rubric for boosting stability along the Israel-Lebanon border–better known as U.N. Security Council 1701–already seems in danger of withering into irrelevance.

Last week, the Lebanese government struck a deal with Hezbollah to allow them to hold onto their weapons near the Israeli border instead of demilitarizing southern Lebanon, as called for by the resolution. And with France and Italy backpedaling on commitments to staff a 15,000-strong multinational force, Israelis are skeptical about the ability of the international community to enforce the arms embargo against Hezbollah called for in the resolution.

“I don’t think that Israelis have any hopes that an international force will disarm Hezbollah, or even have a mandate to do so,” said Ephraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center at Bar Ilan University. “We’ll see a return of Hezbollah to the south–they are already there–and they will be resupplied by Syria. And we’ll return to square one.”

If Israeli observers from all political persuasions agree on one thing, it’s that, if and when the fighting resumes with Hezbollah, Israel’s ground forces need to be better prepared. Over the last few weeks in Lebanon, Israeli infantry and armored divisions were caught by surprise by the sophistication and ferocity of the guerrilla fighters. Israeli soldiers often fell back on tactics developed over recent years against Palestinian fighters with relatively poor training and shoddy arms.

Wearing olive combat pants and a military shirt tied around his waist at the demonstration, reservist Ariyeh Vieder explained that only one week out of his annual month-long stints in the army are devoted to training. “As a soldier, I didn’t do enough to defend my border,” he said. “It was very frustrating when we were in Lebanon to hear how they were firing Katyusha rockets, because they were firing them from our area.”

Yuval Steinitz, a Knesset member from Likud who used to chair the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said he believes that it will take years before Hezbollah can rebuild its military infrastructure to effectively wage war on Israel. Until then, he said, “there are many things to reconsider.”

Israel needs to revise its war doctrines to rely less heavily on air power, he said. Meanwhile, a system needs to be developed to protect the military from rocket fire. Moreover, Israel and the U.S. should complete the Nautilus laser-guided anti-rocket system, which would help to defend against the primitive, short-range Katyushas.

In anticipation of a new fight with Hezbollah, Israel will also need to develop a strategy to snuff out the Katyusha rocket fire rapidly and keep Israelis out of the bomb shelters. Meanwhile, Israel’s ground forces will have to return to the military excellence of 20 or 30 years ago, wrote Ze’ev Shiff, the diplomatic correspondent for the Ha’aretz newspaper.

“The fight against the Palestinians messed up the I.D.F. as a sophisticated regular army,” he said. “It would be preferable for that war to be fought by the border police and to train the large regular army and most of the reservists for a different war.”

That “different” sort of war could involve strikes in neighboring Syria. Although Israel avoided any fighting with Lebanon’s more powerful neighbor, hitting Syria would mean targeting a country that provides logistical support for Hezbollah by serving as a conduit for weapons shipments from Iran.

To be sure, some observers caution that speculation about the next regional war could turn out to be as misleading or mistaken as the preconceived notions that governed the most recent conflict.

“The outcome of a war in the Middle East cannot be foretold at the end of the war,” said Sam Lehman Wilzig, a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University.

Some contend that Israel’s punishing attack on Lebanon’s infrastructure has restored a degree of deterrence with Hezbollah, and that the radical Shiite militia will think twice before embarking on cross-border attacks that risk a second punishing onslaught.

Others see the recent talk of Israeli ministers reopening peace talks with Syria as a move that could help avoid a new war with Hezbollah. Cutting a peace deal with Damascus (though it would come at the painful price of giving up the strategic Golan Heights) would remove Syria as the middleman in the Iran-Hezbollah alliance.

“Everybody understands that the way to stop the Lebanese problem is through Syria,” said Mr. Lehman Wilzig. “You can kill two birds with one stone if you sue for peace with Syria–which isn’t to say it’s going to happen, but it’s a very positive scenario.”

But even if Israel were to reach a peace treaty with Syria, it wouldn’t remove the threat posed by the country that serves as Hezbollah’s primary spiritual, financial and military sponsor.

Iran’s medium-range Shihab 3 ballistic missiles can reach most major population centers in Israel, and the Israelis fear they could face a barrage of attacks if Iran becomes threatened by a U.S.-led coalition to deprive it of nuclear weapons. On Tuesday, Israeli Minister Rafi Eitan said that Israel must prepare shelters throughout the country to cope with a threat that seems more and more likely.

“Iranians stated very clearly that if someone hits them, their first target will be Israel,” he said in comments broadcast on Israel Radio. “We need to prepare the entire country for missile attacks, including all of the civilian organizations–something we have never done in the past.”

And even as residents of northern Israel begin rebuilding their homes and businesses, many say that 30 years of rocket attacks along the border have taught them not to invest much hope in the cease-fire-enforced calm. Whether it’s Hezbollah or Iran, before long there will be another pretext to fight.

“For six years, there was an incredible quiet,” said Uri Alon, a café owner whose storefront window in Kiryat looked like a spider web after the impact of a Katyusha rocket cracked the glass. “But that’s not an indication. So I can’t say I’m more optimistic.”